Home for the homeless

Local churches provide respite from cold winter weather

Mckenzie Lakey

Mckenzie Lakey

Shanai Bemis, Contributing Writer

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In the mostly empty basement of the First Christian Church in Ellensburg, a woman in blue flannel sleep pants lies on her stomach and tries to drown out the loud snoring coming from a large lump of fabric in the corner.

The only other woman in the room sets up a bed next to her. Her name is Felicity and, along with a brown purse and other miscellaneous belongings, she totes a bag of cat food. Her black cat, named Yoda for her green eyes, sits quietly in a cat carrier.

Last night, the two of them left their home and an emotionally abusive relationship.

“It was short, brief, intense and terrible,” Felicity said while offering Yoda a small saucer of water.

Felicity spent a her life up to this point telling herself that she’s done with abuse, but she always managed to fall back into it. However, this time, it’s different. This time she thinks she can start over.

“I have a lot of gifts and the rest of my life to enjoy them,” she said.

In the adjoining kitchen, Andrew, a tall man with a long scraggly beard and black and white beanie, talked about how he spent his afternoon applying to Central.

“I’m excited to go to school,” he said, checking to see if his chicken is done cooking. “I haven’t been to school in 25 years.”

With a divorce, a short career with the National Guard and PTSD, Andrew is looking forward to changing his life for the better.

Outside its 28 degrees and the wind makes it feel even colder. It’s February and most nights the temperature still drops below freezing.

For most of us, winter is an  inconvenience; our fingers and noses get cold, but we warm up with a Starbucks latte in the morning.  

Not everyone is so lucky.

According to the 2015 Point in Time homeless count, an annual count required of each county in Washington, Kittitas County has 27 individuals who currently meet the state definition of “homeless.” However, this count does not include people who can be classified as “couch surfers,” or people who are staying with friends or family while they do not have a dwelling of their own.

So while the rest of us drink hot cocoa and binge watch Netflix, these 27 individuals are left to fend for themselves.

If they’re lucky, they make it in time to spend the night in Ellensburg’s rotating cold weather shelter.

These shelters are maintained every night, Monday through Sunday, at a different church in Ellensburg. Each night, a group of volunteers work two-hour shifts, keeping an eye on the shelter and its occupants.

From 7 p.m. until 8 p.m. the churches open their doors and allows people to check in.

According to Don Green, a pastor with the First Christian Church who oversees the church’s Monday night shelters, this strict check-in time exists for safety reasons.

Each person who checks in to the shelter is checked for weapons before being admitted, Green said.

However, “safe” can be a bit relative.

Recently, an incident resulted in one shelter regular being arrested and another being on the receiving end of a chair to the face.

“It wasn’t just alcohol,” said Roger, a short man in an Arizona University sweatshirt. “I knew [the attacker] and just alcohol wouldn’t have made him do that.”

After check in, each person is given a nylon sleeping bag and a floor mat to sleep on.

They congregate in the large open room, some go straight to sleep, but others sit and chat.

Josh, a man young enough he might be mistaken for a Central student, talked with Roger while he rolled cigarettes.

At 10 p.m., the lights go out and both the shelter occupants and the volunteers settle in for the night.

At 7 a.m. the next morning, once the sun has risen, the volunteers will go home and the shelter goers will face another day in the cold.

“I think about them every morning,” said Karen, who typically volunteers the 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift on Mondays.

She was recruited through the New Life Church in Yakima and has a son who also works with the homeless.

“I go out in the cold and feed my horses and I think, ‘[what I’m dealing with] is nothing,’” Karen said.

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Home for the homeless